Wednesday, May 7, 2008

D.C. United’s new sponsorship deal with Volkswagen, which puts the company’s logo on the team’s jerseys, is not unique in soccer or international athletics. But other American leagues are not quite ready to put a “for sale” sign on one of the last remaining commercial-free zone in sports.

“We are approached by companies from time to time seeking to put their logos on this extremely visible real estate, but we have always turned them down,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said. “We never say never, but it’s highly unlikely we would move in that direction anytime soon.”

Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL also prohibit or restrict the use of corporate logos on jerseys, though individual athletes in tennis, golf and cycling commonly don sponsor logos.

“It’s just that it’s a cleaner look for our uniforms,” NBA spokesman Mike Bass said. “We continue to monitor developments in the industry as it relates to uniform sponsorship. There may come a time when there is a value proposition that recognizes the extraordinary exposure from game broadcasts to 215 countries and from the NBA being one of the most significant Internet properties on a global basis. That value proposition hasn’t been presented yet, so our policy remains the same.”

United’s deal, worth about $14 million over five years, is one of the most lucrative in MLS and gives Volkswagen a host of advertising opportunities, including a right of first refusal for naming rights to a new soccer stadium for the team. The team will debut the new jerseys tomorrow night at RFK Stadium against the Chicago Fire.

In the case of MLS, a move toward the use of on-uniform advertising is a homage to the game’s traditions. Soccer clubs in Europe, in particular, have worn corporate logos for decades, and those logos have often become synonymous with the teams themselves.

“It’s an indigenous [part] of football overseas, and we’re trying to become more authentic and connect with the traditions of the sport,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said. “The jersey sponsors are an example of that, and we have great, international companies with values that are consistent with the values of our clubs.”

United is the ninth MLS team to strike such a deal.

Jerseys for the Fire are emblazoned with a blue and yellow logo for electronics store Best Buy, while logos for Herbalife, Bank of Montreal, Amigo Energy and Red Bull all grace the front of MLS shirts.

The NFL prohibits teams from placing corporate logos on jerseys except that of Reebok, which manufactures the league’s uniforms. The league also restricts the amount of other advertising that might be visible to viewers on television during games.

“We are much more conservative when it comes to this,” McCarthy said. “It’s a different model.”

But there are signs of change.

The WNBA, for instance, is expected to announce next week that its uniforms will don the logo of a major corporate partner for this season’s opening games.

During their series in Japan in March, the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics wore logos for Ricoh, a maker of copy machines and printers, while the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays wore similar logos during a Japanese tour in 2004.

The NFL also relaxed its advertising policies for last year’s game between the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants in London, though they still prohibited advertisements on uniforms.

But sports have learned to tread carefully. In one highly publicized affair in 2004, Major League Baseball faced a massive backlash after placing advertisements for the movie “Spider-Man 2” on the bases in 15 ballparks that summer.

In the United States, only auto racing is more accepting of visible advertising, with cars and drivers’ suits covered in logos and other commercial patches. In both cases, advertising is part of the sport’s history.

But television coverage also plays a role. Both soccer and auto racing offer fewer built-in commercial breaks than other major sports, limiting the amount of money they can make from television advertising.

Football and basketball, for instance, have frequent timeouts — including some designed specifically for television purposes — while baseball goes to commercial break after every half-inning. Advertising on team uniforms hasn’t been as necessary.

“Those leagues and teams have been able to do fine economically using other ways to advertise,” said Paul Swangard, executive director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. “I don’t think they really needed that. In some ways, they may feel that to go down that path of selling uniform rights would be crossing the last frontier of noncommercialization of the sport.”

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